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Backers on a mission to bring commuter air service back to Newport on Oregon Coast

A helicopter sitting in an aircraft hangar.
Kristian Foden-Vencil 
A LifeFlight helicopter is just one of the operations running out of Newport Airport. Town leaders are hoping to attract passenger flights as well.

Oregon has 98 airports, both private and public. Some are little more than a field where pilots can practice takeoffs and landings. Others, like Portland International, help drive Oregon’s economy.

Newport Airport, on the central Oregon Coast, lies somewhere in between. But locals want it to be bigger.

“We need to attract commuter air service,” said Newport city airport director Lance Vanderbeck, who is one of just three airport staff.

He started pumping gas here, then moved up to ground maintenance, then administration.

Newport has two large World War II-era runways, a place for visiting pilots to rent cars, a LifeFlight office, small hangars for planes, and a U.S. Coast Guard auxiliary station.

“We also have FedEx on the field, which is for cargo. UPS flies in on a daily basis. The other thing that we see is corporate flights, like Fred Meyer or Kroger,” Vanderbeck said. “We also get some of the larger entertainers that go up to the casino.”

Despite all the activity, there is a big hole: Newport doesn’t have commuter air service.

Newport Airport director Lance Vanderbeck crosses the taxiway on an airport tour on Feb. 7, 2024.
Kristian Foden-Vencil /
Newport Airport director Lance Vanderbeck crosses the taxiway on an airport tour on Feb. 7, 2024.

Attracting commuter flights can be the difference between businesses settling in town or moving somewhere more convenient.

“I probably head to Portland 40 to 50 times a year,” said Paula Miranda, the executive director of the Port of Newport.

She oversees the marina, with its fishing boats, research vessels and an RV park. That means lots of meetings, many in Portland. She makes the two-and-a-half hour drive about once a week. Flying would take 45 minutes and be cheaper.

She said traffic, weather and timing often mean she has to stay the night when she’s out of town on business.

“I just went to a conference out of state. And I had to spend a night on my way in and on the way back,” she said.

Port of Newport executive director Paula Miranda estimates that she has to drive to Portland about once a week.
Kristian Foden-Vencil /
Port of Newport executive director Paula Miranda estimates that she has to drive to Portland about once a week.

What’s really frustrating for Miranda is that Newport used to have passenger air service.

SeaPort Airlines started flying between Astoria, Newport and Portland in 2009. But it was only sustainable with government subsidies totaling more than $2 million a year. When those subsidies started running out, SeaPort canceled the service, blaming market trends and fuel costs.

Newport leaders tried to keep things running with free housing for pilots and fuel discounts. But Vanderbeck said it wasn’t enough: “You know SeaPort was required to fly four flights a day, whether they had passengers or not, which of course means you’re just burning through your grant money.”

The financial cost of losing passenger service has been minimal so far. But that could change.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration moved its Pacific fleet to Newport in 2011. That includes half a dozen vessels including deep sea research ships and nearshore scientific craft.

The move was a real feather in Newport’s cap, and an economic boon.

But shortly afterward, SeaPort canceled air service, leaving NOAA executives and scientists with a tougher commute to Washington D.C., Portland or frankly anywhere.

Luckily for Newport, NOAA had signed a long lease. But Miranda said keeping the agency in town — and hanging on to other big businesses, for that matter — requires regular, reliable air service.

“NOAA is definitely a big factor. Because the port and the state put a lot of money into bringing NOAA here. We’re seven years away from their lease expiring. Do we want to keep them here? Of course, we do,” Miranda said.

But attracting airlines to a small town is not easy. Profitability relies on having a critical mass of local travelers. And airlines won’t usually set up shop without government help.

The city’s last attempt to lure an airline was in 2018. For $500,000 in government help, Boutique Air said it could provide 520 flights to Portland at a ticket cost of $45. After that, the airline would need more money. But the Oregon Department of Aviation did not approve the grant because not enough local businesses had come forward with concrete support.

Now Newport is taking another run. This time it has conducted a survey to prove local interest.

“To find out if there’s any there, there,” said Paul Schuytema, executive director of the Economic Development Alliance of Lincoln County.

Schuytema said 235 businesses and individuals responded quickly to the survey. Eighty percent said they’d consider purchasing air travel vouchers in advance.

“Then when we started diving into, ‘How often would you make trips?’ Those numbers blew me away,” he said.

“There’s a huge chunk of the companies that responded that they would make well over 10 trips a year. To me that’s a lot. Some of them would make 200-plus trips a year.”

Lincoln County hosts a number of larger organizations, including a Georgia Pacific facility, Oregon State University programs and the Chinook Winds Casino. So the study proves substantial interest. But supporters now have to convince local governments to back the idea.

Newport City manager Spencer Nebel thinks city councilors will probably provide some money. But he said it’s early.

FedEx plane at Newport Airport, Feb. 7, 2024.
Kristian Foden-Vencil
FedEx plane at Newport Airport, Feb. 7, 2024.

“It’s not something that we’ve specifically talked about," he said. "This is kind of a conversation that we’re building up to at this point.”

Now airport backers are spreading out across the central coast to build momentum. In the back of their minds is Redmond Municipal Airport.

In 2003, with a half-million dollar government grant, Redmond residents got 120 local companies to buy prepaid tickets — enough to both prove interest and attract air service. Now, 20 years later, Redmond Airport can boast 30 flights a day and five carriers.

Newport Airport has plenty of activity, from recreational pilots to UPS and FedEx. But local businesses really want a commuter service.
Kristian Foden-Vencil /
Newport Airport has plenty of activity, from recreational pilots to UPS and FedEx. But local businesses really want a commuter service.

Copyright 2024 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Kristian Foden-Vencil is a veteran journalist/producer working for Oregon Public Broadcasting. He started as a cub reporter for newspapers in London, England in 1988. Then in 1991 he moved to Oregon and started freelancing. His work has appeared in publications as varied as The Oregonian, the BBC, the Salem Statesman Journal, Willamette Week, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, NPR and the Voice of America. Kristian has won awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists and the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors. He was embedded with the Oregon National Guard in Iraq in 2004 and now specializes in business, law, health and politics.
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